“The Only Woman in the Room”/ How The Amazing Beate Wrote Equal Rights For Women Into Japan’s Constitution

Unanswerable questions of the year: Is Japan really going to war? Is Japan’s peacetime constitution going to be trashed by the ruling party and returned back to the Imperial Constitution, which did not give suffrage or equal rights to women?

TheonlyThis question will be on the mind and haunt your waking hours after reading “The Only Woman in the Room” by Beate Sirota Gordon. In this memoir, she takes us through the various events in her life made remarkable by the fact that in late 1945, she became a member on the US Occupation team that drew up Japan’s National Constitution. Not only was she the only woman in the room, she was just 22 years old.

Her passport said she was an American citizen, but Beate Sirota had lived for 10 years in Akasaka, Tokyo with her Russian Jewish parents (her father Leo Sirota was a celebrated musician from Vienna and a close friend of Kosaku Yamada). For the past five years, she had been in the US while her parents had been in detention in Karuizawa. The only way to catch a plane out of America and into a ravaged, defeated Japan to see them again, was to get a job in the army. Beate’s Japan experience and the fact that she could speak, write, and read with fluency got her that position.

“The Only Woman in the Room” is honest, plain and straightforward – written not by a professional author but an extremely well-bred, cultured woman who had forged a career for herself in a time when women – even in America – were expected to marry, have babies and sink themselves in domestic bliss. Or just sink. Across the Pacific, American women her age were sizing up future husbands at cocktail parties. Beate was commuting from Kanda Kaikan to Occupation headquarters and working on the constitution 10 to 12 hours a day. She often skipped meals, since food was scarce and the work was so pressing. Her male colleagues pushed themselves harder and put in more hours – and Beate mentions that she admired and respected them for that. Her tone is never feminist, probably because she comes from a generation told to revere males and elders. Besides, she grew up in Japan where women shut their mouths and looked down when a male spoke to them, and that was exactly what she did when she first landed in Atsugi and an official asked to see her passport.

On the other hand, though her tone is consistently soft and modest, her voice is clearly her own – and when it’s time to stand up for the Japanese and their rights, she apparently didn’t give an inch. What an ally the Japanese had in Beate, especially Japanese women whom she describes in the book and in interviews she gave later on: “Japanese women are treated like chattels, bought and sold on a whim.”

Rather than change the whole world, Beate wanted to contribute to the building of a modernized Japanese society. Rather than yell out for women’s’ rights and organizing feminist rallies, she sought to raise awareness about the historical plight of Japanese women and children. And just as earnestly, she wished to help her parents, in particular her mother, who was suffering from severe malnutrition. Beate wasn’t a saint nor interested in being one. Without meaning to, she came pretty close. Her prose is never condescending, nor does it brim with self-congratulations as in the case of many memoirs. She had a story to tell and she told it and as far as she was concerned, when the story was over there was no reason for fuss or lingering.

 

beate

 

After the army stint, Beate Sirota Gordon returned with her parents to the US in 1948, married a former colleague in the Army and later worked as the director of the Asia Society and Japan Society in New York. She continued to give interviews about her work on the Constitution but only because she felt that the peace clause (the controversial Article 9) had to be defended repeatedly. She venerated her parents and remained very close to her mother until her death, while raising a family of her own, because family and love were precious and she knew first-hand the tragedy of losing them.

What culminates from her memoirs is her selflessness. Helping others, being fair, and maintaining a striking modesty in spite of her many accomplishments were the defining factors of Beate’s life. She died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer, four months after the death of her husband Joseph Gordon. The Asahi Shimbun printed an extensive obituary on the front page, lauding her work and reminding the readers how the Constitution had protected Japan all these decades, for better or worse. Mostly for the better.

We in Japan tend to take the Constitution for granted. Many people remember and harp on the deprivation of the war years but few bother to recall the dismal details of everyday life before that. Women couldn’t go to school; they were expected to serve their parents and male siblings before marrying into households where she continued to serve and slave her husband and his clan. These women brought up their sons in the traditional way – which resulted in an unending circle of entitlement and arrogance for men, and toil and servitude for females. In poor families, parents sold off their children. Soldiers and military policemen detained ordinary citizens on the slightest suspicion and beat them during interrogation. They were responsible for committing unspeakable atrocities in China and Korea.

There was happiness, peace, equality, and respect in the Sirota household when Beate was growing up, but she knew too well how the average Japanese in Japan fared; how women and children were cut off from beauty, culture, or anything out of the familial box. She wanted a magic wand that would somehow change all that, and her idealistic, 22-year old mind told her that if she couldn’t get a wand, the Constitution was bound to be the next best thing. The task was daunting – she was working for peace and gender equality in a country steeped in tradition and ‘bushido’ feudalism. At this point in 1945, not even American women had gender equality and there she was, giving her all to ensuring that Japanese women would get that right. And just for the reason, there wasn’t nor has there ever been, anything in the American Constitution that resembles Japan’s Article 9.

At the end of the book is an elegy by Beate’s son and part of it goes like this: “Your legacy is the art of living in beauty and truth, of speaking up and out for what is right, and of finding our best selves and sharing them.”

 

Happy Uniquely Japanese Valentine’s Day! What we talk about when we talk about love & sex in Japan

It’s Valentine’s Day again in Japan or it will be soon….And while Valentine’s Day is a mutual exchange of gifts and professions of love in the West, in Japan it’s a holiday where women give expensive fine chocolate to the men they love and crappy obligatory chocolate to the men they work with or work for, known as 義理チョコ (giri-choko) or “obligation chocolates.”

According to Encyclopedia Aramata, Valentine’s Day was first introduced into Japan in February of 1958 by an employee of Mary Chocolate Co. Ltd, who had heard about the European chocolate exchanges between couples from a friend living in Paris He decided it would be a brilliant marketing technique in Japan so he organized a collaboration with Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku, Tokyo. It was an incredible….failure.  “During one week we sold only about three chocolates worth 170 yen at that time,” an employee recalled.  Yet this employee persisted, later becoming the president of the company, and by the 1980s, he and Japan’s chocolate industry, along with the department stores, had enshrined Valentine’s Day as a holiday that is “the only day of the year a woman confesses her love through presenting chocolate.” The spirit of love.

But of course, as time went by, giving chocolate became something women were expected to do for not only the their “true love” but people at work, their bosses, their friends, and even, their brothers. 義理チョコ  (giri-choko) aka “obligation chocolate” has branched off into “友チョコ (tomo-choko)”  chocolate for friends, 世話チョコ (sewa-choko), chocolate for people who’ve looked after you, 自分チョコ (jibun-choko), a present for yourself, and even the rare 逆チョコ (gyaku-choko) —the rare event when a man gives chocolate to a woman on Valentine’s Day (revolutionary).

When we say “Valentine’s Day” in Japan, it doesn’t quite mean what it means in the West. (We’ll talk about White Day in March). And if you think about it, what do we really mean when we talk about love? Japan has some very specific terms for discussing and classifying love. Although the terms can be expressed in English, the compactness of Japanese words for sex, love, and everything in between is quite charming.

Japan has many words for love and sex. It’s surprisingly rich in words for love such as 友愛 (the love between friends) and 親愛 (love between family members) and of course 恋愛 (passionate love) . Here are some of the words you may find useful as you travel through love hotel island.

The Japanese language is rich in terms for love and sex--which are definitely not the same thing here.
The Japanese language is rich in terms for love and sex–which are definitely not the same thing here.

*出会い(Deai)–“meeting people” Also used to describe dating sites 出会い系サイト and one-night stands.

不倫 (Furin)-“adultery, infidelity.” Has more of a negative connotation than uwaki

慈愛(Jiai)–compassionate love. Much like the love a parent feels for their child–a desire for the happiness and well-being of another. When the Dalai Lama speaks of love in Japanese, this is often the word used to translate his words.

 

*浮気 (Uwaki) –1) to describe someone who can romantically love many people 2) infidelity; an affair 3) being in love with in someone other than your partner 4) (old usage) cheerful and gorgeous

*恋人 (Koibito) “lover”

*熱愛 (Netsu-ai) “passionate love”

*恋愛 (Ren-ai) “romantic love” A word very popular in Japanese woman’s magazines

*恋い (Koi) “love”

*一物 (Ichimotsu) “the one thing”  According to an old joke, the definition of a man is this: a life support system for an ichimotsu (the penis).

*慈悲, 慈悲深い (Jihi) (Jihibukai) “compassionate love/sympathetic joy” This comes from Buddhism and describes a maternal love, originally means to give joy and peace to someone and remove their pain. 慈悲深い人–someone who is compassionate and finds happiness in the happiness of others.

*情熱 (jounetsu) “passion”

*ラブ (rabu) “love” pronounced Japanese style.

ラブラブ (rabu rabu) “love love” used to described a couple deeply in love.

*同性愛 (douseiai) “homosexual love”

*愛 (ai) love. “to love” 愛する (ai suru)

*好き (suki) like. Used often to express love as well. 大好き (Daisuki) “really like” Old school Japanese males never say, “I love you” (愛している) they would say, Daisuki. This line:“君が大好きだ” (Kimi ga daisuki da). “I really like you” is often the profession of love in a Japanese movie or television show on both sides.

純愛 (Jun-ai) “pure love” An almost mystical concept of love as something beyond physical or material reality. I’m still not sure what this means but it sets off lights in the eyes of Japanese women. It’s a television drama buzz word.

*惚れる (horeru) fall in love

*惚れ込む (horekomu) fall deeply in love

*一目惚れ (hitomebore) love at first sight “hitome” first sight. “hore” fall in love (see above)

満足manzoku (satisfied)

*セックス (Sex)—This is “Japanese English.” It means sex.

*前戯 (Zengi)–Foreplay. Mae (前)means before and “戯れ” means “play, goof around”.  Technically this entry should have been before Sex (セックス) on the list but then I wouldn’t be able to make this joking reference here.

*セックスレス (Sexless)—Maybe half of Japanese marriages are sexless. Who knows why? It’s a common complaint for Japanese women and some Japanese men..

アイコンタクト (eye contact)” Important in courting.

*エッチ (etchi) A cute-word for anything sexual, flirty. Usually has a fun connotation.

*男根 (dankon) “male-root” If you can’t figure out what this means, please refer to 一物 (ichimotsu)

*おまんこ (o-manko) The female genitalia, sometimes just the vagina. Also referred to as simply manko. However, we prefer attaching the honorable “o” as in “orgasm”.  Also, it’s never bad to show respect. Even amongst the closest of friends, decorum is necessary. 親しき仲にも礼儀あり

*愛人 (aijin) Lover. The aijin is usually the partner in a forbidden romance. Similar to “koibito” but more of a shady aspect.

*オーガズム (ougasumu) orgasm

オルガスムス (orugasumusu) orgasm in Japanese taken from German Orgasmus

絶頂 (zettcho) climax, orgasm in Japanese language

*失楽園 (Shitsurakuen) A very popular novel and movie about a passionate modern day affair that ends in double suicide, with the lovers found dead in each others arms in mortal post coitus bless. Yes, you wouldn’t think this would encourage people to have affairs but it did! Women’s magazines had multiple features on the books and movies.

潮吹き (shiofuki): female ejaculation. Some Japanese women release a squirt or excess lubrication on orgasm. There appears to be some science suggesting that this does happen.

鼻血 (hanaji): bloody nose. There is a strange folk-belief that when a Japanese man is sexually excited he gets a nosebleed. Go figure.

Note:

In Japan, when man or women reaches orgasm, they don’t come (来る) they go (行く/iku). Likewise, to make a man or woman reach orgasm, is to 行かす (Ikasu) “make go.”

 

楽園 (rakuen) mean paradise. 失(shitsu) means “loss” or as a verb 失う(ushinau) to lose.

 

If I was running a campaign aimed at women for Japan’s favorite 浮気(uwaki) dating site for married people, I might make a pun on this along the lines of “恋愛の楽園を失いましたか。Ashleymadison.jpで禁断の楽園を再発見しよう“ (Did you lose your lover’s paradise?Rediscover the forbidden paradise on Ashleymadison.jp) BTW, the site already had a 1,000,000 members within 8 months.

*恋い焦がれる (koikogareru)=”burningly in love” to be in love so deeply that it’s painful, to yearn for the other 恋い (love) + 焦げる (burn).

Not a negative word, but a way of expressing a deep passionate consuming love. Many men and women seem to be seeking

*ベッド (bed)—usually a roundabout way of discussing sex in Japanese female magazines

–プレイ”—(play) This is usually added to various types of sexual fetishes.

性愛 (sei-ai) Erotic love, eros (sex/gender 性 +  love 愛)

For example, 赤ちゃんプレイ (Aka-chan purei)—When the guy likes to be diapered like a baby, possible shaved completely nude, and nurse, sometimes with a woman who’s actually lactating. I could tell you a really strange story about a police raid on a place specializing in this type of service but I’ll skip it.

 

*遊び (Asobi) “Play”—this can refer to sex, an affair, a one-night stand. It has a wide usage in Japan and adults “play” just as much as children. Hence the costume fetish in Japan—

コスプレー (cosupurei—“costume play”)

 

密事 (mitsuji)—An old word but a literary one for discrete affairs.

*禁断の愛 (kindan no ai) Forbidden love

*密会 (mikkai) secret meeting

*ばれない (barenai) to not be discovered, to get away with something

*絶対ばれない (zettai barenai) “absolutely no one will find out”

REVISED: February 14th, 2018

Banzai To Japanese Print Media! Kaori Shoji’s Picks For Excellence In Japan’s Written Word World 2017

 

As Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” would say with a sigh and drag on her cigarette holder, “Quelle year.” As far as bad years go, 2017 pretty much did us in and it’s not even over yet. Still, the news isn’t all bad, at least in the Japanese publication world. Paper and ink is still around. The Japanese language is not dead (though it may be mired in poop – more on that later). Here are some of the best publications that restored my faith in print, life and native country, and shone through like beacons of light on a dark and murky sea.

1. “Kimitachiwa Dou Ikiruka” by Genzaburo Yoshino

Part self-help book and part shining example of the epistolary art, “Kimitachiwa Dou Ikiruka (How Do You Live)” was written 80 years ago by journalist Genzaburo Yoshino, famed as of one of the last great philosophical writers of post-war Japan. Yoshino always wrote from a humanitarian, anti-war stance (he was arrested and imprisoned during WWII) and launched legendary leftist magazine “Sekai (The World)” a mere one year after the Japanese surrender in 1945. Lesser known is that Yoshino also wrote for children and young adults in the pre-war era. Published in 1936, “How Do You Live” is a book of letters from a gentle, enlightened uncle to his thirteen-year old nephew, as the latter tries to navigate the difficulties of growing up in a Japan controlled by militarists and headed toward a destructive war. The uncle comes up with the nickname “Coperu-kun” (after Copernicus) for his smart and always pondering nephew. What is life? Why are we here? What’s friendship and what does it mean to be human? Together they tackle all-important questions while being respectful of each other’s boundaries and getting each other’s backs. If only I could go back in time and give this to my 13-year old self, I’d discover that life could be beautiful in the bleakest of times.

The publishing house behind “How Do You Live” is Iwanami Shoten Publishers. The manga version authored by Shoichi Haga (published by Magazine House) was rushed to bookstores at about the same time as the novel, and on its own, has sold over 33,000 copies. Japan’s beloved filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki chose “How Do You Live” as his back-from-retirement project, and has said in interviews that it will take 3 to 4 years to do justice to this masterpiece.

2. “Sabishii Seikatsu” by Emiko Inagaki

Ms. Inagaki was 50 when she decided to quit her job at Asahi Shimbun, one of the nation’s most powerful newspapers. The reasons were varied but as she put it in her previous book “Tamashii no Taisha (The Soul Wants to Quit)” she was fed up with the work/spend treadmill and longed to break free. Two years on, she’s still unemployed, single and nearly 2 decades away from drawing a pension. “Sabishii…” is all about how Ms. Inagaki sustains body and soul – and has the time of her life doing it.

“Sabishii Seikatsu” literally translates as “The Lonely Life” but a more apt English title would probably be “In Praise of Solitude.” If you’ve wondered whether it’s possible to live in Tokyo on 100,000 yen a month (no, she doesn’t have roommates and yes, she likes going to bars) including rent, the pointers are in this book. And you got to hand it to her – Ms. Inagaki knows how to do semi-poverty in style. She frequents the public bathhouse instead of using her own shower, forgoes electricity for a single gas ring and candles, hand-washes her clothes and does not own a refrigerator. She finds infinite joy and fascination in adjusting her life as if this was the Edo Period, albeit with an iPhone and laptop. Her sole indulgence is a monthly trip to her favorite hair salon to maintain a snazzy afro She goes out for the occasional latte and bagel but otherwise, she’s a perky flower child forming a one-woman front against authority, energy waste and nuclear power plants. If the Abe Administration’s nuclear re-booting policies are getting you down, here’s Ms. Inagaki to tell you to stop fretting, turn out the goddamn lights and hop on a bicycle. The best revenge is written out in these pages.

3. “Moshi Bungotachiga Kappu Yakisobano Tsukurikatawo Kaitara” by Keiichi Kanda and Ryo Kikuchi

The Japanese think they see the universe in a cup of tea and a single tatami mat. Authors Keiichi Kanda and Ryo Kikuchi saw a bestseller in instant yakisoba noodles, and they got to work to make it happen. “Moshi Bungotachiga Yakisobano Tsukurikatawo Kaitara (What if the Literary Giants were to Write How to Make Instant Yakisoba Noodles?”) has its tongue firmly ensconced in the cheek, but offers preposterous fun. One of the sleeper hits of the year, the book has spawned a sequel and sold over 15,000 copies so far.

Page after page, “Moshi…” simulates how different authors would take on the same theme of making the perfect instant yakisoba, in their individual literary styles. And that’s it. There’s nothing else. You may well ask, so what IS this yakisoba? It’s fried noodles flavored with worcester sauce, a kind of soup-less version of the cup noodles we’re all so familiar with. Yakisoba comes inside a plastic square container accompanied by a packet of a few strands of dried cabbage. You pour in some boiling hot water, let it sit for a few minutes and (this is the all important factor), you then POUR OUT the water through a little hole in the container. This is called the “yukiri” process. You then prise open the lid, mix in the sauce and dried veg and there you have it – yakisoba. In this book, eminent authors from Ryunosuke Akutagawa to Haruki Murakami to Kanzaburo Oe are pulled off their pedestals and riffed on as they virtually write their own perfect instant yakisoba recipes. From the west, the exalted likes of Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle, Andre Breton, Dostoyevsky and Susan Sontag are called to take a stab at yakisoba creation.

The perfect companion for the times you want to run away from the world and computer screens. Just keep a yakisoba on hand and try mimicking your favorite wordsmith as you make those noodles.

4. “Kyujussai Naniga Medetai” by Aiko Sato
The translation of the title is: “Ninety Years Old, What’s There to Celebrate?” Personally, I feel it’s closer to “So I Turned 90 – No Biggie!” Japan’s treasured granny authoress Aiko Sato is an amazingly youthful nonagenarian with a badass attitude toward life, politics and the general yuckiness attached to growing old in Japan’s super-aging society. This book started out as a column in women’s magazine “Jyosei Seven” and was published by Shogakukan Ltd. It has sold well over a million copies.

One out of 4 adults in the Tokyo metropolis is now over 70 and it feels like the nation’s dwindling population is growing grayer by the week but Ms. Sato shrugs off the hand-wringing negativity. Part memoir, part self-help guide for every generation and a sizzlingly entertaining read, “Ninety…” was published in 2016 but has marked week 63 on the bestseller list and is still the most lucrative title of 2017.

What rises from the pages is a cheerful nihilism. Ms. Sato dispenses the wisdom garnered from nearly a century of life but she warns us none of it is particularly warm or heartfelt. Nearly all of the chapters deal with disappointment and despair and in one segment she discusses love. “If you love a man to the point that you’re ready for marriage, don’t let anything stop you. But don’t bank on happiness ever after. Life is volatile and love even more so. Nothing lasts forever so be prepared for sadness and suffering, betrayal and all the rest of it.” In other words, shit happens. Or more to Ms. Sato’s point, shit is inevitable and the less fuss we make about it, the better. The mostly hilarious read is tinged by moments of sadness – for all her sharp wit, Ms. Sato admits to feeling crushed by loneliness. She has pretty much outlived her friends and loved ones and the ones that remain are “not feeling so chipper.” But navigating the minefield of depression is one of her “projects” and she considers everyday a “learning experience.”

Surprisingly, “Ninety…” is popular among children and millennials. Says 24-year old Saeko Kato, an OL who has written a gushing fan letter to Ms. Sato: “No one can escape growing old, but I like to think that there will be fun times ahead. This book fills me with hope, and the energy to face whatever lies ahead. Being a Japanese woman, I think I’ll live a long time so I need to know that it’s going to be all right.”

5. “Pen Plus” Magazine, November 20th Edition
Cover Story: “Made in Japan wo Sekaie! (Let’s Bring Made in Japan to the World)”

Once upon a time, the “Made in Japan” logo was a brand to be reckoned with, standing for quality, reliability and thousands of labor hours that fueled the nation’s legendary work ethic. This year, that logo crash-burned on the tarmac as we saw one mighty manufacturer after another indicted for falsifying data, covering up scams and more. On the other end of the work spectrum, “Premium Friday” and the whole “Hatarakikata Kaikaku (Work Style Reform)” thing kicked in. Even as demand for quality went up, Japanese workers face the pressure to go home and not spend so much time being dedicated employees. What to do?

One way out of the conundrum is to look at small to mid-sized companies. While the manufacturing giants that defined Japan’s rapid growth era are flailing sheer size and antiquity, smaller operations are full of ideas, light on their feet and zipping around. “Pen Plus” magazine is a spin off of the monthly “Pen” magazine and they’ve dedicated an entire issue to rethinking the “Made in Japan” logo. The conclusion? It’s not about high-tech gadgets and appliances anymore but handwork and craftsmanship. And thanks to the Internet, Japanese artisans can collaborate directly with offshore brands to come out with products that have global appeal and marketing power.

Kaihara Denim out of Fukuyama City in Hiroshima prefecture, has wowed fashion designers like Jean Toitou of A.P.C., and Marcus Wainwright of Rag & Bone, and morphed into some of the world’s most coveted pairs of jeans. Japan’s chocolate artisan extraordinaire Susumu Koyama is now one of the most revered figures in the international chocolate industry. Toward the end of the issue, there’s an interview story with former soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata. He launched a project called ReValue Nippon, from his very own, Japan Craft Sake Company. Admittedly, it has less of an impact than Cristiano Ronaldo’s men’s underwear but hey, it’s a start.

Honorable Mention:

Grades 1 Through 6.
THE publishing sensation of 2017, “Unko Kanji Doriru (The Poop Kanji Drills)” series enables elementary school kids to have a jolly fun time while studying kanji. It gave a new twist to the heretofore ho-hum kanji learning experience, and provided entertainment for parents as well. There are reports that the series took some of the pressure off of pooping in school – which has always been a traumatizing experience for generations of Japanese school kids (for the girls, it’s the squat toilet that does it.)

Most of the practice sentences in “Unko…” are master stroke combinations of education and hilarity. Like this one for second graders: “Ima sugu kokode unko wo surukotomo dekirundesuyo (It’s okay for you to poop right here, right now).” Or this one for third graders: “Yoyaku shiteita unko wo torinikimashita (I came to get the poop that I had reserved).” And so it goes for six solid issues. Some of my friends have bought the series to use as prizes for their company Christmas parties. If nothing else they do provide solid reading for the holidays.

Hey, Baby? You’re fired, don’t come back. Maternity Harassment (MATAHARA) and The Working Woman in Japan

Fighting Against Maternity Harassment is a grass roots effort
Fighting Against Maternity Harassment is a grass roots effort

 

Working at one of Japan’s megabanks, a workplace notorious for old-fashioned male attitudes, it wasn’t uncommon for Mrs X to be told, “Don’t you dare get pregnant!” or “If you get pregnant, we won’t give you any work!” from her colleagues.*

It was then that she became pregnant from her long-term partner. Unmarried unsure of how her workplace would react, she consulted with one of her colleagues.”It was then that a manager from another department heard from chance. He got angry and said, ‘Quit messing around! I will never allow the pregnancy of someone who isn’t married. If what you’re saying is true, then I will not treat you like a human being!'” she told JSRC.

“Eventually I couldn’t stand the atmosphere and fear in the workplace and chose to abort (the child).”

The Peeling Face Of Womenomics 

Japan faces a tough hurdle of an aging population coupled with a low birth rate. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in 2013, pledging to solve the low birth rate and impending labor crisis, embraced a policy dubbed “womenomics,” and reviving the economy by raising the number of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020. A pledge he has since backed away from.

It’s a hard task, considering that Japan’s business world is dominated by deep-rooted sexist attitudes that favor male workers over females and women, who are considered a bad investment due to the belief that they’ll quit when they marry and have children. Japan ranked 101 out of 142 assessed countries in 2015, according to a study released by the World Economic Forum.

And if a woman does become pregnant, while working, some are subjected to what the media has dubbed matahara (マタハラ).

According to Japanese Trade Union Confederation, matahara is an abbreviation of “maternity harassment.” The word refers to mental or physical harassment that some workingwomen go through when they announce to their colleagues that they’re pregnant or after they come back to the office from maternity leave. Some women come back to find themselves demoted or receiving a pay cut. In the worst-case scenario, some are even pressured to quit or fired. Harassment comes not only from men in the office but other women as well—sometimes out of irritation that their workload will increase, sometimes out of a kind of jealousy.

Prime Minister Abe’s former education advisor, Ayako Sono, infamous for publishing a column in a major Japanese newspaper advocating apartheid as part of immigration policy, said that “maternity leave is an unfair burden on Japanese companies” while still advising education policy.

Under the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, employers are required to pay consideration to pregnant women by offering them shorter work hours or flexible work schedules. They’re also banned from firing or demoting expectant mothers due to pregnancy and required to give them maternity leave. (Men are also technically allowed to take maternity leave as well to help in the first few weeks after a child is born.)

In practice, however, the law is hardly followed—and the local courts are hardly sympathetic. A physical therapist in Hiroshima was stripped of her job title and her managerial allowance following her second pregnancy—and her request for a “lighter workload”–in 2008. The woman, who had been working at the hospital since 1994 and was promoted to vice-director of her department in 2004 was told that there were no vice-director positions available when she came back. She sued her employer for violating Article 9.3 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and Article 10 of the unwieldy Act on the Welfare of Workers Who Take Care of Children or Other Family Members Including Child Care and Family Care Leave and gender discrimination.

The Hiroshima District Court and High Court rejected both of her claims on February 23 and July 19, 2012, with the District Court arguing that “the plaintiff never objected to the shift to a lighter workload.”

It took until October 2014 for the Supreme Court to strike down the decisions make in the lower courts. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the Supreme Court ordered the woman’s former employer to pay 1.75 million yen in damages. The court sent the case back down to the Hiroshima High Court, arguing that the proceedings regarding the necessity for a demotion were insufficient.

Maternity harassment sometimes extends outside of the workplace. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has been producing pregnancy badges since 2006 that say “I have a baby in my stomach” for expectant mothers to wear on public transportation to let other passengers know that she is pregnant.

A large percentage of the Japanese male public is unaware about these badges. A government survey released last September revealed that over 60 percent of Japanese men had  never heard about the badges, Jiji press reported.

In some instances the badges have instead become a source of trouble, even harassment for the women who wear them. One Mainichi Shimbun reporter who followed an expectant mother on her daily commute and found that even though her source stood in front on the priority seats—special seating on the train reserved for elderly, disabled, and pregnant passengers—other passengers rarely stood up to give up their seats.

Other expectant mothers wearing the badges have alleged on social media websites such as Twitter that they had experienced verbal and physical harassment from strangers such as being  elbowed or knocked down.

One anonymous poster on an online forum wrote  in regard to the pregnancy badges, “Do [these badges] mean ‘I want you to reward me because I’m pregnant’? I just think it’s strangely brazen.

So Abe faces a tough task in changing business and societal attitudes towards women in order to solve the country’s labor shortage, especially when members of his very own party display the same chauvinistic attitudes that pressure women in the corporate world to leave their careers.

The policy has failed horribly. Of the record five female ministers appointed to Abe’s second cabinet to set an example, two resigned in the same day due to misuse of campaign funds. Two other female ministers came under fire for links to extreme Nazi groups.

Deputy Prime Minister—and Shinzo Abe’s second-in-command and a likely candidate for being the next Prime Minister—Taro Aso said at a speech in December of 2014  in Sapporo, “There are many people who are creating the image that (increasing numbers of) elderly people is bad, but more problematic is people who don’t give birth.”

The Abe government even abolished the babysitting discount ticket system,  the Sankei Shimbun reported. The tickets, which were distributed to 3, 000 people through 1, 300 companies, allowed working women to place their sick children, who are unable to attend a daycare when ill, with babysitters for a discounted price.

On March 31st 2015 the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare decided to consider the termination of a female worker’s employment within one year after the end of her maternity leave as “illegal” and issue warnings to companies who violate this law.

“In regard to companies that violate the law, we will provide administrative guidance to rectify the situation by advising them, then guiding them, and then making recommendations. If they do not follow our recommendations, we will publish their company name,” said Hitomi Komorizono, an official from the Equal Employment Opportunity Policy Division of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

However, the move still has victims doubting that it will change the situation.

“I don’t think that just because this notice came out the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, that things will improve,” says Sayaka Osakabe, a former victim of maternity harassment who founded an online network for other victims called Matahara.net.

“However, because of this notice, I think that it will be easier for female workers to raise their voices.”

During a session of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, when Ayaka Shiomura was giving a speech on women’s issues, members from the Liberal Democratic Party section of the room yelled out jeers telling her to “hurry up and get married” and “why can’t you have babies?”

It’s a tough spot for Japanese women. On one side of the spectrum they’re being punished in the workplace for giving birth to children. On the other side they’re being told to breed. Either way, simply existing as a woman in Japan seems to be considered an inconvenience. The lack of affordable day care is another problem altogether.

Is it any wonder the number of women giving birth declines?

* Previously published on September 16, 2016.

 

 

 

 

Cursing in Japanese…but not the way you think.

Japan has always believed that spoken words had a certain power, almost magical power. Thus, the word “to curse” aka 呪う (norou/呪う) has a mouth 口 as part of the kanji, as in intoning a prayer or curse and the 兄 part symbolizes a priest at the altar, or someone praying at a shrine. All together, the word means to wish something happens to an individual via magic, with the effect being good, bad or neutral but usually bad as in 呪い殺す (のろいころす) literally, to curse someone to death.

 

呪術の本 (The Book Of Cursing In Japanese) is a fascinating guide to magic and spells in Japan, historically and in use.

 

All of this brings us to this week’s fascinating book: 呪術(じゅじゅつ)の本 .
It an illustrated history and textbook of cursing people and magic in Japan. You can learn how to make a Japanese voodoo doll, banish bad luck, tell the future, and stop a lover from being unfaithful (via pickled cuttlefish) by making them impotent.

Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover…Dead? Three Japanese Voodoo Dolls To Choose From

In the pages, you’ll learn how to ward off evil. Revive the dead. Cast a love spell.

You can use this pickled seafood spell to make your cheating lover impotent.

The book is lavishly designed with furigana for the difficult kanji. So for the 日本語 novice, it’s a great way to learn difficult Japanese and rule the world.

Just remember this proverb: 呪わ二つ(ひとを のろわば あな ふたつ)「When you curse someone, dig two graves」The meaning? Even magic can’t transcend karma, so before wishing ill on someone, remember that you get back what you put out there.

The book is sadly out of print but you can find used copies, if you’re lucky…
or unlucky? Use with caution.

 

性犯罪被害に遭って警察に相談した結果? How do police handle sexual assault cases in Japan?

The Amazing Japanese Wife Part 3: A Man Needs His Carcinogen

This is the third in a series of short fiction by Ms. Kaori Shoji  entitled “The Amazing Japanese Wife” about international marriages in Japan gone off the deep end. Any similarity to real events, persons, or incidents are your imagination and probably means that you really should have a stiff drink and contemplate the meaning of happiness, karma, and the universe. You need Suntory time. Previous chapters are below, although not all stories are clearly connected. 

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 1

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 2 “Fucked Up In Six Trees” 

***

I bought a new car and my wife hates it.

Or more to the point, I bought a new car knowing she’ll hate it. So what? So this snazzy little Mazda sportscar – a black Roadster to be precise – is all mine. I’m not particularly fond of driving in Japan, the roads are too narrow and parking is sheer torture. It’s my wife Seiko who does the driving when we go out together, in her beloved white Mercedes purchased 4 years ago on the occasion of our seventh anniversary. In Japan, the number 7 is extra special, expected to bring all kinds of luck and wealth. Besides, I had just had a windfall, business-wise and figured it was about time. “Let’s get a new car, a good one this time!” Seiko had said, and I took her in my arms and said yes because I hadn’t seen her so excited in a long time. The next day, we were at the Mercedes dealers. That’s Seiko. She always goes for the adamantly mainstream, heavily conservative Japanese choice. They all love the boxy Mercedes (which everyone here calls ‘Bentsu’) color white. The plasticky and ridiculously expensive Vuitton handbags. Those painful Ferragamo shoes. Terrible French restaurants with Michelin stars. I could go on all day.

The white Mercedes and Seiko have been inseparable. In the beginning, she had willingly drove me to the train station in the mornings and picked me up again in the evenings. I would text her the time of my train out from Tokyo, and she would be come meet me in Yokohama with the seventh anniversary car. That worked for awhile, until Seiko started making excuses and ducking out of our routine. First it was yoga classes and then it was cooking school. When she finished learning how to make the perfect roast beef, she started meeting friends from said school to hang out at that new Italian joint. I protested because it felt like she was cutting me out of her life, to which Seiko flared up. “I’m not your chauffer, I have my own life.” She said that in English and then she said it in Japanese, which is her habit when making a point.

I briefly let my mind wander over that memory and then shrug it off. Now that I have my own wheels, most things about my marriage have lost its urgency. I know this is textbook male menopause stuff – I’m 54 – but the Roadster has been a godsend. It soothes over the rough spots, especially on those days I know Seiko won’t be home to greet me. Fuck it, I thought all Japanese wives waited on their husbands and cooked elaborate dinners just for the two of them, every single night. That was the deal, otherwise I wouldn’t have…what, gotten married? No that’s not it, Seiko was the best thing that happened to me. I was tired of playing the field, tired of one-night stands and each new date with a Japanese woman who didn’t speak much English, grated on my nerves. I longed for a relationship where I could talk with the girl all night, and then in the morning, make love over champagne cocktails. I wanted to be a cooler Woody Allen, to a Japanese version of Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.”

“Even the ones who talk in English aren’t all that interesting. I mean, where have these women BEEN all their lives, is what I want to know.”

Cathy said that, a couple of months after Seiko and I were married. Cathy was a friend of some years, and since we both grew up in Houston, we got each other in a way that was impossible with Seiko. “Hey dude,” Cathy would say when we met to talk, either in a bar or at a little Mexican restaurant that served Tokyo’s most authentic burritos. “How y’all doin?” I loved Cathy with all my heart but the physical attraction wasn’t there. Banking on that, I treated her like any other guy friend and poured out my apprehensions of life with Seiko. Then one night when Seiko was at her parent’s house and I was with Cathy in her apartment, things got boozier than usual. Cathy put her bare foot in my lap, and then the foot began digging gently into my groin. And before I knew it, we were making out with the kind of ferocious hunger I hadn’t known since college. Cathy yanked her shirt off and then her bra.

“At least you don’t have black nipples. Most Japanese women do, I mean, all across Asia, women are fuckin’ gorgeous until they take off their bras, man last time I was in Manila I was with this girl who…” Then I felt a gust of wind. Cathy had quickly disengaged herself and sat up. She gazed at me like a sliver of bacteria under a microscope and said with quiet finality: “Just make sure I never have to see your face again. I mean EVER. Are we clear?” Somehow I pulled on my pants and stumbled out and that was the last time I talked to her.

My problem is this: after 20 years in Japan, I’ve gone from being an American Male to an American Male in Asia, which are two entirely different entities. I’m uneasily aware that much of what I say or how I act would never be tolerated back home. Apart from Cathy, I haven’t been close with any white women here, though I know many of them are attractive and smart and worthing talking to. At ex-pat dinner parties, I’ve noticed how some of them would just get up from the seat next to mine, to go talk to someone else. Later, someone told me how so-and-so remarked that I never spoke of anything except Japanese women, which bored her stiff and was plain offensive.

To hell with it. Of course I talk about other things, like this car. My friends all whistled and cheered when I drove into town to show it to them. They didn’t take me up on the offer to let them drive it though, because their girth would have made it it dismally uncomfortable. Okay, it’s a tight fit for me too, but one of my resolutions is to lose the weight and glide in and out of this baby with ease. Secretly, I’ve named my car Sandra after my high school crush. I sure as hell wasn’t going to call it Cathy.

And I also talk about work, because I happen to be CEO of my own translation company. It’s mostly technical translations which bring in the most cash, and I’m proud to have had the foresight to set one up immediately after my arrival here in the mid 1990s. I sold the company, moved out of Japan and went to the Philippines to start another company, sold that, moved back and here I am. So I sure as hell wasn’t about to let some broad from Oakland sit judgement on what topics I choose for discussion. She should be thankful I even took the time to talk to her. Bitch had a face like a rock anyway.

I’m driving over Bay Bridge now, and the Kawasaki smoke stacks loom on my left. I freaked out when I saw this place for the first time, and made the mistake of breathing in the black factory fumes that rose to the sky in towering spirals. Kawasaki is an ungodly sprawl of fossil fuel industry, sex shops, Korean barbecue restaurants that serve every kind of cow innard including rectums, and a sizable residential area thrown in for measure. The air is leaden with grease and smoke, mindful of late 19th century London. Not that I would know, but Arthur Conan Doyle described this stuff in the “Sherlock Holmes” books. Which reminds me, must get a new audio book for when I’m with Sandra.

It strikes me at this point that Sandra is a consolation prize for the hurtful fact that I haven’t slept with my wife in over a year, and she doesn’t seem to mind. Not. One. Bit. Some time after Year Five of our marriage, when I was on the brink of diving into the big Five Oh and Seiko was in her mid 40s, she completely turned off sex. I had to cajole and negotiate every time I felt like it, and was deeply humiliated to discover that she never felt the same.

Oh wait, there was that time when we were having dinner in this fancy ‘kaiseki’ dining bar and she started flirting with the waiter. They were giggling politely together as they discussed the menu and I looked at Seiko’s face and saw how badly she wanted this guy. He was nothing special, just a young Japanese in his early 20s, pencil thin like most of them, with glasses and short cropped hair. I watched and bided my time, and during dessert I said some of the worst things a man could say to a woman: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You do realize you’re old enough to be his mother and he’s laughing at you behind your back, you know that, right?”

Instead of snapping back at me, Seiko fell silent. She seemed so vulnerable at that moment, pale-faced and more adorable than she had ever been since the early months of our marriage. A single tear fell from her eye as she said: “he looked like my boyfriend in college. It’s just nostalgia.” I could have apologized, but like the white male idiot that I am, I forged on. “Ahhh, nostalgia. The Japanese are just so hung up on nostalgia. What the hell’s with the memory lane thing? You guys lost the war. We put you back on your feet. And your college boyfriend? He’s an old man now, he’s fat and bald and riding a packed commuter train as we speak!”

Seiko forgave me but after that little incident, we had sex less and less. I said we should get counselling but she practically snorted with derision. “Why do American men want sex so much? Are you sick? Is it a disease? I wish you would express your love for me in other ways.” And when I tried to bring it up again, she turned her face away, cried and said in Japanese: “I’m tired, leave me alone, please leave me alone.”

My American buddies who had married Japanese women had warned me this would happen, especially after babies came into the picture. Tim, who had divorced his American wife to marry a Japanese woman named Yoko (of course we called him Da Lennon after that), laid his woes on bar counters all over Tokyo. “Man, I need to get laid,” he would whine, and recount how Yoko had moved out of their bedroom and laid a futon in the baby’s room for easy night nursing. “Japanese women. They stop being women and just turn into fucking mothers. Why don’t they just tell me before I booked the goddamn church?” Poor Tim. He and Yoko are still together, and raising two boys. He’s always taking the kids out for soccer practice and baseball games but Yoko never goes. Tim always says the same thing: Yoko is resting and wants to have the house to herself. “Yeah, Seiko always says that too, and she doesn’t even have the excuse of kids!” I laugh. I let my heh-heh-hehs sink in, but no one laughs along.

Once I get past the Kawasaki rust belt, I get off the highway and ease Sandra by the curb. With some difficulty, I get out of the car and place my feet on dirty pavement. I look out again over the factories and gas tanks. I do this maybe twice a week, just to breathe in the awful fumes and contemplate the red and white checkered oil towers, the colossal chimneys vomiting up all kinds of toxic gas. And it gives me such a thrill. Men are like factories, I think. All the internal pumping and churning, the permanent furnace sitting between our legs, the enormous clanging and hulabaloo to produce…what? Something no one really wants or cares about, probably. But at these moments, I understand exactly why Donald Trump wants to brings back these factories, and the millions of men in hard hats who support him. We can’t help it, we ourselves are factories. Born to Spew.

Tonight, I’m getting take-out Chinese at my neighborhood place, and then relaxing on the sofa with Netflix until Seiko comes home. Not a bad life, I tell myself, steering the car around to face Yokohama again. Sandra and I take off, and for once the roads are pretty clear. I estimate another half hour until we get home. Later, maybe I can tell my wife about the man-as-factory thing. Maybe she’ll laugh, and we can hang out together on the sofa and be friends.

Seiko and I still share the same bedroom but sleep in single beds placed two feet apart, because she claimed my snoring bothered the hell out of her. I understand this arrangement is the most popular among Japanese couples. Salariman husbands only come home after the wife and kids are asleep anyway. Two single beds work just fine. The other day, one of the younger Japanese men at my company, said casually that he hadn’t spoken to his wife in a month even though they’re currently sharing a double bed inherited from his brother. “And that doesn’t worry you?” I asked. “Don’t you miss talking to her, what if she’s having an affair?” He smiled and said that lack of communication was the secret to a long-lasting bond. “I don’t know what she’s doing. She doesn’t know what I’m doing. But we are good.” Those were his exact words.

But we are good. Fuckin’ Ay.

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part II “Fucked Up in Six Trees”

This is part two of series of short-stories by culture commentator, movie reviewer, and fiction writer–Kaori Shoji–on international love gone wrong in and out of Japan. 

****

By my personal estimate, the lives of most white foreigners in Tokyo start and end within the confines of a town called Roppongi, which means ‘six trees.’ Apparently, before the arrival of Commodore Perry and his Black Ships, this area was blah and nondescript save for the presence of its namesake. There were the trees and there was very little else.

A hundred and fifty years later, the trees are gone but Roppongi is prominently featured in every Japan guide book and online travel site. It heads off most tourists’ agenda in terms of must-go, must-see, must-experience. They think this is Tokyo, and a good chunk of its best offering. That’s not a lie but everyone who’s been here longer than 6 months will tell you Six Trees isn’t really Tokyo and certainly has nothing to do with Japan.

Roppongi is the white male’s extra-territorial sanctuary as well as metaphorical catacomb, where pleasure draws a last gasp before crumpling into a heap of old bones. The white man’s loop of entitlement extends from the famed Roppongi intersection to the concrete mausoleum known as Roppongi Hills, then down to a quaint little neighborhood called Azabu Juban and back again. Once you get on the loop, it’s damn hard to get off so you keep repeating the run until you’ve lost track of what life was like before you thought of moving to Japan and immersing yourself in Roppongi’s cesspool of slimey privilege.

Because hey, the deal is this: if you can’t get laid in Roppongi, you may as well move to Mars. There’s no other place on Earth that promises and delivers sex with the same reliable standard. I’d give it 90%, 100% of the time you’re there. Never mind sushi – they’re overpriced and the tuna is imported from Indonesia. Forget Toyotas, they take too long to assemble and what’s all the fuss about anyway? Sex in Six Trees – now that’s Japanese quality control honed to an art form.

Jesus, I’m getting literary which means it’s past 6 AM on a Saturday morning and I’ve drunk the night away. This is not good, no fucking’ good, I chant to myself as I lurch my way past other drunks (but very few disorderlies, because this is Tokyo), on the side street that leads to the Roppongi intersection. I was at Tim’s house with a few other guys, then we hit that bar and then went over to the Cedar’s Chop House in the newly opened Remm Hotel which is supposedly a big deal but really just turned out to be a raucous gaijin hangout with Jack Johnson on the sound track – really, who are they kidding? Still, the place was kind of cozy which is a rarity in Six Trees. Not that this nice vibe is going to last. Soon, Remm Hotel will be overrun by what I call the International Working Girl Association (IWGA) and their foreign clientele, just like every other hotel in Roppongi. With the Russian Embassy on one end of the loop, the Chinese Embassy on the other and the American Embassy on the far left of the intersection, what the hell else can you expect?

Aaaaanyway. We ended up at god knows which drinking hole though I remember the toilet was filthy and Tim bleating on and on about getting pancakes for breakfast and where should we go for pancakes? What a tiresome bastard.

This time of morning the sunlight’s still feeble and I could bear to bask in its gentle rays. I hear snatches of loud conversation and automatically straighten my back, turning my feet towards the direction of voices. A pimp with broad shoulders and a bull neck in a dress shirt, is clutching the shoulder of a thin girl with bobbed hair – maybe 23 years old, it’s hard to tell at this hour. He’s trying to sell her to a potential customer, a youngish salariman in a dark suit. “I guarantee she’s nice, sir” he says in sing-song Japanese which annoys me no end. “If you won’t take her, then she wouldn’t have had a customer all night and that’s bad for her reputation, all the other girls are going to look down their noses at her. You wouldn’t want that to happen now, would you?” The salariman mumbles a few words, casting furtive glances at the girl who’s wearing nothing but a slip dress and sandals under the pimp’s oversized jacket. She looks cold and depressed and purses her lips, not about to pull out any encouraging sales talk. “I don’t have much time…” the salariman says. Inwardly, I snort with laughter. You mean, you’re not ready to shell out 20,000 yen for a throw, that’s what.

Maybe the pimp could hear inside my brain because he notices me observing with what I hope is a casual, bemused detachment. “And you sir, what about you? Japanese girl, velly velly nice!” The last bit was spoken in English and the pimp’s accent wasn’t bad. He’s been doing this long enough to know the value of a white male in Hugo Boss jeans and I’ve been stomping these streets long enough to know I’ll be treated better if I pretended zero Japanese language skills. I amble over and the salariman makes himself scarce. I get a better look at the girl, whose glassy stare gives nothing away. Her hands are pretty and lily white though, clasping the lapels of the jacket around her body like Jody Foster in that movie. I like a woman with petite, well-cared for hands and Japanese women have the loveliest pairs in the world. We exchange a look and I feel her stiffen under her sheer, thin slip.

It’s all the same to her. BUT she does need to chalk up a number on the board in the girls’ locker room, at the sex shop where she works maybe, 4 nights a week. Who else is going to do it, if not for a benevolent white guy like yours truly?

“Okay, okay.” I say this a little too loudly, with an exaggerated shrug. The pimp is wreathed in smiles. “Okaaaaay!,’ he mimics and makes a polite little gesture toward the doorway. The establishment is downstairs in a narrow, dirty, three story building tenanted by a mahjong parlor, a reflexology salon and a pizza restaurant according to the signs out front. “You will be happy, happy!” he says and leads the way into a tiny elevator stinking of roach repellent, and pushes the B1 button. I look at the girl and smile. She smiles back, grateful for even this useless token of friendship. We both know that if the salariman had taken her he wouldn’t have cracked a smile. He wouldn’t have said two words to make her feel better about her life, just stood there and waited for her to unbuckle his pants, and then would have taken pleasure as his due. White males may be self-entitled jerks but Japanese guys are the worst. No wonder the women in this country hate the lot of them.

When I emerge back out, it’s past 8 and Roppongi is teeming with tourists. The bill was 22,000 yen and I reflect that in the past two years I’ve always had to pay for sex in Six Trees. A tad humiliating, I know. I’m not young anymore – 34, and even white male entitlement has to end sometime. But I reason that the girl had been extra willing and “velly, velly nice,” which takes the twinge off the hurt. I yawn, put on my shades and consider walking to Starbucks in the Ark Hills building down the hill from the intersection. What I needed now was an espresso kick in the nerves and a blueberry muffin.

The local volunteer group is out and about in their logo-inscribed vinyl jackets (“Green Roppongi!”). These are mostly men in their 60s or older, picking up overnight litter from last night’s debaucheries, scattered in the spaces between gutter and curb. What most foreigners don’t realize is that there’s a sizable number of ordinary Japanese folk living here and they care enough about their community to do this. I stop for a moment and watch as they shuffle methodically, wielding steel tongs in one hand and clutching garbage bags with the other. Their faces are obscured by white surgical masks (one way to tell a Japanese from an Asian tourist is to see whether or not they’re wearing masks), making it impossible to read their expressions.

When I first came to Japan as an exchange student at the age of 17, my host father also volunteered at the local trash pick-up, clearing the beach of debris every Saturday morning. He worked for the municipal office, so participation was more or less mandatory. He seemed to enjoy it and I would pitch in because no one else in the family did and I felt sorry for him. When we were done, he always treated me to matcha icecream or iced coffee and said over and over how much he appreciated my help. “Brian, you are wonderful,” he said. “No, YOU are,” I would reply like a dutiful son, and we would look at each other and laugh politely.

I was home-staying in Chiba prefecture, near the Boso coastline and I was having the time of my life. Never had I felt so welcomed, valued and protected. I was loved in a way that seemed impossible back home in Illinois – not that I was abused by my biological parents or anything. But I was nothing special, just a scrawny kid with acne and too-thick eyebrows. I couldn’t make varsity on the track team, had no girlfriend and definitely was not one of the cool crowd. At school, I dreaded prom and was deeply grateful that my year in Japan would absolve me of that particular American teen torture.

In Chiba, I was a prince. On my third day in school, a girl in my class presented me with a hand-made bento and another very nicely gave me a blow job in a public restroom down by the beach. Later I learned the two girls were best friends, and they had played ‘janken (paper, rock scissors)’ over which of them would have the bento duty and which would be in charge of rolling out the sexual red carpet. I was flattered, but also baffled. What had I done to deserve such treatment? Others offered similar gifts and liaisons – in little secluded areas around the beach, in their parents’ car at night, in their rooms when they invited me over to teach them English. They baked cookies for me, presented me with handmade chocolates on Valentine’s Day, held my hand under the desk and guided it to their thighs. One or two told me that they loved me, to please marry them so I could take them to America.

By my last month in Chiba, I had the Japan experience all figured out. It was so ridiculously easy here. My acne was gone, thanks to the sea air and the string of casual girlfriends who took real good care of my teenage hormonal needs. I had learned a lot of the language, enough to ingratiate myself to my host family, school teachers and guy friends. Having run on the track team back in Illinois helped a lot, because most Japanese are ardent runners and fiercely dedicated to school sports. “You’re great, don’t worry,” said my friend Haruhiko as he inducted me into the school’s short-distance track team. Haru trained like a fiend and could whip my ass on the track any day of the week but he was also big enough to make a foreigner feel good about himself. I was a lazy bum who skipped practice to hang out with one girl or another but Haru looked the other way and pretended not to notice.

Naturally, I was far from stoked about the idea of having to leave Chiba and Japan. In the plane to O’Hare, I said to myself over and over that I would come back no matter what it took.

What it took was an MA in theater from the University of Chicago and then a 3-year stint working as a Congressman’s assistant on Capitol Hill. I fulfilled my teenage resolution on the day before my 26th birthday, March 2010. I arrived, back in the Promised Land where I planned to get laid by the prettiest girls with the smoothest pale skin and go drinking with the Japanese buddies I would surely acquire as soon as I exited the airport. In a year or two, I would find the most amazing woman and get married. She would make incredibly elaborate meals, just like my host mom made every night – potato croquettes, Japanese fried chicken and rice encased in a fluffy omelet. We would have beautiful bilingual children who would grow up to attend Ivy League colleges on full scholarships. (Haruhiko, my old friend from Chiba, had gone to Yale and was now working on Wall Street.)

That was Plan A. I didn’t think to work out Plan B. And my line of defence is: Roppongi interfered.

As I walk down the long hill from the Six Trees intersection to the office complex called Ark Hills, I notice my eyes are suddenly itchy and moist. What the fuck, dude, a pathetic self pity party? I tell myself it’s just some unseasonal pollen allergy but I can’t shake off the sense of what, sadness? Regret? For a long time, no one has told me that I was great or wonderful. No Japanese woman has said she loved me, and to please take her to the United States. Now I had to pay for love, and friendships consisted of alcohol-infused rant fests with like-minded assholes. What the hell went wrong with the scenario? I had somehow played a colossal and perverted joke on myself, and could barely muster the courage to laugh. “Fuck this,” I mumble and thrust my hand into my front jeans pocket. My fingers touch a crumpled pink ‘meishi’ – the Japanese business card. It’s from that girl I just had intercourse with, and she had given it to me just before I left. “Come back soon!” she called out, but I was already closing the door behind my back. Now I smooth out the meishi to read her (professional) name: Amika. Uh-huh. Sorry, Amika but I couldn’t care less at this point. With a sigh, I toss it to the pavement and start to walk off. On second thought, I circle back and pick it up again.

You can say what you like, but I don’t throw garbage on the street. It’s the thought of making extra work for those volunteers in their little vinyl jackets. It’s also to honor the memory of my host-dad. Six Trees has at least, taught me that much.

“Letters to the Most Repulsive Parents in Japan”

Goya “Saturn Devouring His Son”

Amidst the political turmoil and economic recession Japan has found itself in the recent years, how poor parenting takes a toll on the lives of the most vulnerable is often the last thing on people’s minds.

The most recent (2012) Ministry of Health and Labor’s reports showed that 16.3%, roughly 1 in 6 children in Japan live in relative poverty, belonging to a household that has less than half of the national average income, ranking 4th out of the 30 OECD countries. The numbers correlate with the rapidly multiplying number of child abuse cases. When the Ministry of Health and Labor started their investigation for a better grasp on the issue in 1990, the number of child abuse consultations to Child Consultation Centers were 1101 and it has been on the rise ever since, peaking at 103,260 cases in the most recent reports of 2015. The number of consultations alone have gone up 100 times in 25 years.

From April 2014 to March 2015, the number of victims  who died as a result of abuse was 44,  and the number of deaths by forced suicide was 27,  a total of 71 victims. Approximately every 5 days a child dies of abuse somewhere in Japan. Increasing reports in the media on the cruel fates of children has raised national concern on the matter.

Isshow Con a non-fiction writer is compiling a book 『日本一醜い親への手紙』(Letters to The Most Repulsive Parent in Japan).  The word “醜い” (minikui) in the title is often used to describe physical ugliness but is also used to depict shameful dishonorable acts. The book will consist of 100 letters written by child abuse survivors to their abusers ie., parents or guardians, to better illustrate the realities of life during abuse and the aftermath. His aim is to bring attention to the issue and also highlight the lack of support the government provides in the victims’ physical and mental recovery and social integration in life after abuse. This was an issue raised as a warning to the Japanese government in the 2010 report by the Committee on the Rights of the Child and yet no significant progress has been made.

Con is calling for submissions for letters and also raising funds for the publication of the book (four  million yen) through crowdfunding. Through the funds raised here, every letter submission will be met with an honorarium of 10,000 yen, in hopes that the money could be used by the victims to provide themselves a transportation to a shelter or to pay for a counselor which may lead to reports being made on their behalf. The donors will receive a book upon its completion this fall.

In a society where press freedom is stagnating and constitutional revision is pushed forward everyday and Japan appears to be becoming an increasingly controlled society, children’s rights will mostly likely be on of the first things to go and the issue of child abuse will take a back seat despite international pressure. Books like these are one of the few ways in which children in Japan with little resources will be able to raise their voices and be heard. Support and spread the word.

To donate : http://letters-to-parents.blogspot.jp/2017/02/blog-post_14.html

To buy this book :http://letters-to-parents.blogspot.jp/2017/02/blog-post_1.html

*This book is an updated version of the same title published in 1997, the rights to publish this overseas is available for purchase on a first come first serve basis. For more information : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fj2-434FzxA

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 1

Japan Subculture Research Center is proud to present a series of short stories, by our resident book reviewer and social commentator, Kaori Shoji, on the often tragically mismatched marriages of foreign men and Japanese women. If you see echoes of someone you know or yourself in this story, be rest assured that you’re a cliche—but take solace in the fact that misery is universal.

Note: Ms. Shoji should be credited for coining the word WAM (Western Anglo-Saxon Men) also (White American Men)–a more understandable term for the Charisma-man type of entitled self-important foreigners that once flooded these shores but now mostly live in Hong Kong, Beijing, or Singapore. Also, it should be noted that Ms. Shoji has always been an equal opportunity misanthrope, as evidenced in her book review entitled 21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck.

Without further ado, welcome to the first in the series…..

 

Smothered in Silicon Valley

We are on the patio of my parents’ house in Palo Alto – my wife Eriko and I, on a sunny Sunday morning in March. There’s a sharp nip in the air but no wind, and the lone cherry tree in my mother’s garden promises pink blossoms later in the month. Sunday brunches at this house has turned into a weekly ritual, ever since we left Tokyo for Northern California a year ago. When I tell that to people, and that I Iived in said Tokyo for 16 years before returning to the Land of the Free (note the irony in my voice), eyebrows go up. In some cases, mouths turn downward in a reverse arc, depending on the listener’s experiences or their image of Japan. (Pearl Harbor. It’s always Pearl Harbor.) I was 24 when I finished up my graduate studies at Cal Tech, and took off for a country I hardly knew. Cool Japan wasn’t yet a thing. Anime was for hard-core geeks. But I had read two novels of Haruki Murakami and decided that in some tortuously inexplicable way, I belonged in the Far Eastern capital.

“So how did you like that? Wasn’t it just very busy and expensive?” asked Tim, my supervisor during one of five interviews I had, in order to land the job at a tech company in Oakland. “Oh yeah,” I replied, with a self-deprecating chuckle – a mannerism I picked up from living in Japan. The Japanese are excessively modest, and self-deprecation with a laugh is a national pastime. “Seriously though, I learned a lot. Japan’s been good to me,” I added cautiously. What I really wanted to say was that I poured my whole youth into the experience. I made my bones. I fell in love, time and again. And if you really want to know, Tokyo is a lot cheaper than the San Francisco Bay Area. But all that would have been inappropriate in a job interview. Besides, Tim – who is laughingly WAM (White American Male) and whose trips abroad has been limited to London and Mexico City, couldn’t care less about my back story.

I stretch out on the deck chair. Behind my Oakley shades, my eyes are closed and I’m only half-listening to my wife Eriko converse with my mom about the new farmer’s market that went up near Safeway, 5 blocks from my parents’ place. I reflect that my brother and I grew up here, and the chair I’m sitting in has been around since my teens, and my mom is basically the same woman she’s been for the past 30 years.

Eriko is saying what she’s always saying. “It’s very expensive, everything is expensive. One daikon is 3 dollars! In Tokyo, I bought daikon for under 200 yen.” My mom clucks, and sighs that Palo Alto has gotten so expensive and crowded they are thinking of selling the house and moving. I let out an exasperated sigh. How can my parents move? Three years ago my dad’s name was struck off the faculty list at Stanford where he had taught American Literature for 30 years. They’re still paying mortgage on this house.

Mom and Dad are used to this 3-bedroom place with the 2-car garage, their friends and Safeway where the Mexican staff always helps my mom carry groceries to her car. If they moved, they couldn’t afford to buy, at least not in the Bay Area. The housing market is astronomical and prices on everything including water, have gone through the roof thanks to the protracted California drought. Young techies fresh out of coding boot camp are told off by their bosses that they can’t afford to live here, not even on a six-figure income. Right now, the median rent for San Francisco is something like 3500 dollars. The average monthly daycare cost for one pre-kindergarten child in the Bay Area is over 2000 dollars. (Eriko and I don’t have kids but that could change.) The Thai salad with quinoa I had for lunch the other day? Fucking 18 dollars.

“You’re much better off where you are and you know it,” I say to my mother. “Just don’t get a new car.” My parents are living off their savings and what money Dad gets from tutoring jobs. An awkward hush settles over the patio like a foul odor and my mom purposefully looks in another direction.

As soon as the talk turned to money, my dad shuts down like an old, clunky computer. He gazes at the sky with his coffee mug cupped in both hands and I feel a sting of real sadness. I know what my father is thinking, he’s thinking that he’s fine, that this is all good. But it could be better and as a WAM with a Ph.d and his Stanford career, he should have more. A better car than his 10-year old Honda, a nicer home, all the latest gadgets, vacations, dinners out with my mom and their friends. A glittering Facebook update. They’ve never even been to French Laundry though that’s been on my mom’s wish list for a decade.

Eriko gets up and goes inside the house, undoubtedly to the kitchen. I watch her retreating figure with…what is it, boredom? I actually feel bored when I look at my wife of 6 years, though I tell myself it’s more like placidity, contentment. She herself is very comfortable in Oakland, and professes that she never wants to go back except for short vacations to her parents’ place. When we lived in Tokyo, life was much harder for Eriko. She cooked 2 meals a day, worked in an office and had a daily, two hour commute. She was also about 12 pounds thinner and seemed oh, so fragile. I’d give her a hug and feel her small rib cage under my big hands, her little breasts and narrow hips. We were both in our mid-30s when we met but she looked to me like a girl in college. Now I get comments everyday from people who have met my wife about how pretty, how slender, what a good cook, considerate, polite, supportive, accomplished…Even Tim likes her, and I’m not sure if he’s about to make some moves on her, the bastard.

The truth is, Japanese women are amazing. Half the time I spent in Japan was about chasing them down, chatting them up in my appalling Japanese and getting them in the sack as soon as humanly possible. The other half was spent bragging about my astonishing success rate to expat bros. But then it was like that for most white men anyway, unless they were spectacularly ugly or had hygiene problems, and even then they never had much trouble finding sex. Life in Japan frequently turns white men into sexist, racist, male chauvinist assholes, without our being aware of it. I call it the Japan Creep. I have said things to Japanese women that I would never say to a white American female. I took it for granted that they were only too happy to do things for me, including schoolgirl cosplay during sex (don’t judge me) and sushi dinners on their tabs. No Japanese woman I slept with seemed to resent any of that. They in turn seemed to take it for granted that they should please American men because…well if it wasn’t for us and our democracy, they’d still be wearing raggedy kimonos, they couldn’t eat at Shake Shack and they’d be forced into god-awful marriages with god-awful Japanese men, whose international popularity rates just a notch above Nigerian, according to some poll I read once. Right? I mean, COME ON.

But a couple of years after turning 30, I realized that the classiest and most well-bred of Japanese women rarely have anything to do with the average white man apart from gracious socializing. To them, we were loud, stupid and ill-mannered. And the pool of casual sex was slowly but surely, drying up. It just wasn’t as fun anymore and I felt less inclined to spew the same old tales to the same old bros, who suddenly seemed obnoxious beyond words.

And then I met Eriko at my local gym. She asked me with a shy smile if I knew how to work the elliptical, and I could tell she was trying hard to carry out our conversation in correct English. I was so touched that a sob caught in my throat. It hit me that I didn’t want to date anymore. I wanted a Japanese wife – to iron my shirts and cook my meals and greet me with a smile every time I came home from work. Japanese men had that for more than a millenia, so why couldn’t I, I mean we – all of us American jerks? Three months later, I proposed and Eriko said yes, on condition that we have the wedding in Hawaii with just our families and closest friends because we were both in our mid-30s and “too old” for a big ceremony in Tokyo. Eriko adored Hawaii. Her girlfriends adored Hawaii. Most Japanese women do.

It’s regrettable to say but Japanese women lose some of their flavor once they leave Japan. It’s only been a year but Eriko has assimilated so completely to American suburbia she may as well call herself Ellen. Not that she’s become part of the white community of Oakland. She bounces inside a comfortable bubble consisting of our house, her car (a Toyota Corolla) and a close-knit circle of Japanese housewife friends. She’s with these women all the time, texts them incessantly to cook Japanese dishes together and schedule jogs around the neighborhood. Now Eriko’s ribcage no longer feels like it might break if I squeeze too hard. She no longer smiles in silence, but laughs out loud. Her hair and skin – once moist with Asian humidity, is drier, tougher. Her neck is thicker, connecting to shoulders that suddenly seem broad and strong. I’m happy that she’s happy here. But inside a secret, inner recess somewhere in my soul, I feel like I’m being quietly smothered.

Before marriage and Eriko, I lived the Tokyo bachelor’s life in a place called Zoshigaya. The area had several temples and a big shrine, with a rickety candy shop that’s been around since the mid 18th century. My abode was on the third floor of an old apartment building, standing on a narrow street that led to the shrine. Two fairly spacious rooms facing southeast, and a wrap-around veranda for a cool, 790 a month. (Our current 2 bedroom house in Oakland is 2850, which everyone assures me is an absolute steal.) Most of the time, I complained. I whined about the heat and humidity in summer, the whipping cold winds in winter. I hated the commute to work, and the subway cars with announcements in three languages (Japanese, English and Chinese) that came on before each and every stop. I cringed every time I heard a salariman cough or talk too loudly, because most Japanese men have really ugly voices.

I longed for sunny California, and the sight of white womens’ tanned legs stretching out of denim shorts, strolling the malls on a Friday afternoon. California Dreamin’. It had developed into a definite thing.

After my 40th birthday and 5 years after my marriage, I was done with Tokyo. I got my Japanese wife so had no further use for Japan, like a mercenary with his loot looking for a fast exit. I wanted to go home where there were no puddles on the sidewalks. Never did I want to stand in a crowded train again, chest to chest with a salariman. I wanted to back my own car out of my own garage, and drive my ass over to Crossfit classes. I would work on my abs. Binge watch on Netflix USA. And I would finally get to watch Superbowl with my dad. Besides, Eriko made it clear, during our numerous discussions about crossing the Pacific, that if she had wanted to stay in Japan she would have looked for a Japanese husband. “I want to go away to California” she said. “I want to change my life.” That clinched it. I applied to job openings in 5 mid-sized tech companies in and around the Bay Area, and landed one after 2 months of meetings and interviews.

Not surprisingly (for isn’t that how things work out?) I regretted the move to Nor Cal almost immediately. I missed Tokyo’s tiny alleyways, the narrow, labyrinthine streets. Most of all, I missed the complex texture of things like linen shirts and tatami mats, women’s arms, the taste of Japanese citrus. I missed the air, sticky with fumes and redolent of centuries of history. I missed the rain and how the thick, gray clouds seemed to hold the city in an unclenched fist. Sixteen years in Tokyo had spoiled me in many ways but I didn’t bargain for an annoyance – an irritation really – for the blithely ignorant, have-it-all American lifestyle. I had dreams of walking down an alley, turning the corner and seeing a cat bound across the pathway and my heart will be filled with gratitude, before I woke up to relentless sunshine streaming through the window. No fault of Nor Cal and certainly no fault of Eriko. It was me. Too far away, too long. Adjustment was going to take some time.

“Hey Eri,” I call out. “We need more potato salad!” “Okay!” I hear her yell cheerfully and I feel my mother cast an ironic glance in my direction. She doesn’t like it that my wife is the one doing the chores while her son sits around like a big galoot. On the other hand, I could see that she thinks it’s maybe okay – about 70% okay – because Eriko is an Asian. If I had married a white woman, it would be different. I would probably go into the kitchen with her and help her prep the salad. And our conversation on the patio would be more…lively? In-depth? Friendly but a little controversial? I ponder these things as Eriko emerges with a large wooden bowl. “My special potato salad,” she beams.

And my dad rouses himself from his torpor. “Did I hear potato salad? You have an incredible wife, you know that,” he says to me. “Of course I do. That’s a given,” I reply. And then we all gather around the table to help ourselves.